It seems like a lot of travel blogs are detailed outlines of everything a person did, saw, and visited during their trip. It’s more of an itinerary, designed to inspire the reader to feel that they, too, could have the same amazing experience.
This blog post will not be that.
I have absolutely nothing against the itinerary-style travel blogs. I’ve personally used them many times to get inspiration or do research before an upcoming trip! I just wanted this to be something different, something for my own memories.
I didn’t necessarily want to recount all the details of where we stayed, what we ate, and the places we saw. I’m married to an engineer, so we already have a teeming spreadsheet saved with those details from when we were planning the trip.
Mostly, I wanted to narrow it down and write a reflection about the main impressions the trip left me with. Like when I think back on Peru, what comes first to my mind? Which moments were important enough that they stuck with me even after all these months? To me, that’s worth writing down.
Exploring the city of Cusco (11,152 ft) and adjusting to altitude before the trek.
Walking in sacred footsteps
Our main goal in going to Peru was to hike the Inca Trail through the Andes Mountains and come out at Machu Picchu. This was a trip I had been dreaming of since I was a teenager. (To find out why and the back story there, you can check out my post here.) I think for me this trip was already an emotional one from the start because it was the realization of a desire I had for so many years.
What originally attracted me to it wasn’t necessarily that Machu Picchu is one of the seven wonders of the world. No, I was more excited about the idea of HOW we were getting there...
“The Inca Empire was the largest ancient civilization in pre-Columbian America. The Incas, who flourished from approximately 1200 to 1533 AD, grew their empire through military conquests and peaceful assimilation, eventually occupying an extensive area in the Andes Mountains…the Incas built a network of approximately 25,000 miles of roads that covered 1.2 million square miles.” source
We would be hiking the “Royal Road,” a path that the natives themselves used to travel through the mountains over 500 years ago. What a thing to experience. What a privilege.
(left to right) Johnathan exploring ruins / Porters at camp / Ancient crop terraces in the mountains
The journey, not the destination, they said
In 2001, the Peruvian government introduced a quota system to protect the integrity of the trail and ruins, as well as to limit the types of companies that can offer guided tours. Only 500 people are allowed to be on trail each day, and only 200 of which are hikers. source Occasionally you see other groups and pass people on the trail, but for the most part you spend all day hiking with your cohort and guides who become short-term family.
The guides are Peruvian natives and are very knowledgable. Some of them make this strenuous trek 40 times a year. They're hardworking, fun, personable, and you get to know them. Long days of walking and cold nights of drinking coca tea lead to deeper conversations. You find out what their dreams are, where they come from, and learn their candid views on Peru's government and economy. The porters and cooks somehow bake a cake with camping equipment at 9,000 feet of elevation and everyone celebrates on the last night together.
Our guides told us from the beginning to enjoy the four days and three nights we’d spend trekking through the mountains. Arriving at Machu Picchu was the end destination, but it might not be the highlight they said. That was easy to understand right away.
Machu Picchu, on the other hand, is the crowded tourist attraction that the whole world comes to see. You don't have to hike there. You can easily take a steep bus ride up the mountain and experience it for the day. You watch people of all ages soaking it in. You hear tour groups in every language. You see women wearing high heels.
It is what it is.
After three solitary, majestic, sweaty days in the mountains, the commotion is a little jarring though. You've seen lots of ruins by this point, and while none can compare to the size and complexity of Machu Picchu, you know in your heart that you've already been deeply satisfied. Machu Picchu is just the cherry on top.
Isolation brings it all alive
However, the limited number of people who get permits and opt to hike the trail in means you get the ruins along the way mostly to yourself! You have freedom and space to explore, reflect, and learn a ton while your guides explain the architecture, the history, and the cultural significance. You're in the middle of the world's longest mountain range, standing in centuries-old structures, and it is silent and peaceful and vast.
You feel isolated way up there in the mountains, and maybe it’s the isolation that makes it all easily come to life. At times you are standing on a peak, and yet surrounded by still taller peaks. The mountains seem to be floating among the clouds. And you marvel at it. You look around and think of ancient people managing to live and thrive there.
Experiencing the Andes mountains.
Imagine climbing to the tallest accessible part of a mountain that you can realistically reach. There’s not a path yet of course, so you’re reinforcing one as you go. You find a spot that seems habitable. By the power of a strong arm, building supplies (read: raw stone) are hauled in.
Then there’s the matter of a functioning society. Water systems to be engineered. Crops need planting. Agricultural science. Livestock. Materials for fashioning clothing, tools, home goods. Social systems developed. Military. Medicine. Communication and transportation in, out, and through. Defense against torrential weather, seasonal extremes, rivalries, enemy attack, and eventual certain foreign invaders. And all of this at the top of a mountain miles away from the nearest village. Years and years of development forged from the physical strength of bodies and resourcefulness of the mind.
I wonder if we actually can imagine it at all.
We sigh at the task of making dinner out of what’s in our (full) pantries and these people raised a conquering civilization out of nothing but available flat space on a mountain top. I bow in reverence.
Johnathan and I at a lookout spot on the Inca Trail.
At one point I specifically remember thinking, “I’ve never seen mountains like this before.”
The longest mountain range in the world, and spanning seven countries, the Andes are unique in and of themselves. In some places they are lush and tropical, reminding me of the Ko’olau Mountains of Hawaii, but at an immense scale. The average elevation in the Andes is about 13,000 feet, and the tallest peak is just under 23,000 feet. They are only surpassed by the Himalayas. source
They tower up into the sky and plunge deep deep down into river valleys. You think you’ve seen the tallest point, and then there’s so much more beyond it. You feel minuscule standing in the middle surrounded by endless peaks. But they aren’t stoney and cold and jagged like the mighty Rockies of North America. They curve and have green warmth. They somehow…invite.
Many of the ruins were originally built as military outposts, religious ceremonial sites, family dwellings, and temporary shelter for messengers passing through the mountains.
These mountains are full of life. We learned about the religious beliefs and practices of the Incas who were a polytheistic people, and it’s easy to understand why. Up here in these mountains you are so exposed to nature. Cloud forests, volcanoes, deserts, glaciers, and rainforests - you see it all here. You’re so close to the ebb and flow of Earth’s cycles. You can’t ignore it. And the Incas were dependent on it for survival. You know you are on sacred ground.
For me in present day, it was the presence of God. And it was full immersion.
I weep recalling it. The Holy Spirit was with me, as surely as the backpack I was carrying on my back. At this divine altitude, God seeped into everything, and all around me. Such a full-body exposure to joy, might, reverence, beauty, and humility. His grace was sweet and sure, and the prolonged spiritual experience felt like a gift from the mighty Creator.
Early morning at Sun Gate looking out over Machu Picchu.
Finding His presence
As a Christian, I acknowledge Jesus as my Lord and Savior. I know I don’t need to fly to Peru and walk an ancient path in the Andes to experience God. I believe that the Holy Spirit is always with me on any given day, but I do think that sometimes we need to turn down the noise of life and simply open up to receive. The middle of a mountain range is a great place for that.
Put yourself in the way of beauty, turn down the noise, remove distractions, and open your eyes. In these conditions, I’ve always found God’s presence.
Sunset on night 3 of hiking the Inca Trail.
A note on why I love to travel
I don’t travel to escape reality. I travel to have a fuller, clearer picture of reality.
Peru was not an easy trip. We did not come back “well-rested” since we were waking up before the sun most days. Both of us got sick at some point. We spent a lot of hours in transit either by plane, car, or foot. And there are the realities of an impoverished people, poor sanitation, and evidence of a history of conquest and oppression that you witness daily. I see it. I acknowledge it. I grieve it. And all that weighs on you.
But that is part of traveling for me - eyes wide open to the way other people live and the history that the place has endured. And I keep in mind always that I am privileged to be there. Privileged in so many ways in my life, and that is something I try to steward well.
First, by not taking it for granted. Second, by adapting myself respectfully to the local culture, people, and customs, and not expecting that they adapt to me. It is not often comfortable. Third, by doing my best to travel sustainably. This can mean a lot of things. To me it means consuming mindfully, using resources lightly, and giving back while I’m there and after I’m gone. Yes, I want to experience all there is, but I can’t tolerate that coming at a heavy cost to the environment or local communities.
I’m after life’s sweet nectar...
I don’t want chemically cleaned lukewarm water from the tap. I want spring water. Cold from being held by the earth. Gritty and unfiltered, but sweet and refreshing and crisp. Maybe you have to haul it in by bucket and you won’t get a lot at once. But cup your hands. Take a sip. There is life.
(top to bottom) Machu Picchu / On the Inca trail / At an eco resort in northern Peru
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